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UW Assistant Professor Receives NSF CAREER Award To Dig Deeper into Rock and Fluid Interactions

February 4, 2014
Two people working in lab
Lamia Goual (left), a UW assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, recently received an NSF CAREER Award. Here, she works with doctoral student Vahideh Mirchi to measure the wettability of an oil drop on a quartz surface in the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory. (UW Photo)

By studying oil and its effects on heterogeneous rocks in the subsurface, Lamia Goual plans to create an advanced computer model that will benefit both the environmental and energy industries.

To assist her research efforts, Goual, an assistant professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, will use a $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award she recently received from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Goual receives the funding Sept. 1 for her project, titled “CAREER: Impact of Mineralogy and Wettability on Pore-Scale Displacement Mechanisms of Nonaqueous-Phase Liquids (NAPLs) in Heterogeneous Rocks.” NAPLs are chlorinated compounds or petroleum hydrocarbon products.

“I will be using oil (as an NAPL),” Goual explains. “I want to use these findings not only for remediation of NAPLs in aquifers, but also to understand improved oil recovery by surfactant flooding.”

This research focuses on water and energy, both of which are important to the university, the state of Wyoming and the nation, Goual says.

Outcomes of this research will help advance knowledge and understanding of immiscible fluid displacement in heterogeneous rocks, or rocks composed of multiple materials. The research will have important applications in managing and optimizing use of water resources; remediation of contaminated aquifers; underground storage of CO2; improved oil recovery from conventional and unconventional sources; and fuel cell technologies, Goual says.

Using High-Tech Tools

To design an appropriate remediation system that uses surfactants to clean oil in aquifers, it is important to understand the characteristics and behavior of NAPLs in the subsurface. Goual will have a number of high-tech tools to aid her research.

Using the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory in UW’s Energy Innovation Center, as well as the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) and UW’s Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC), her goal is to generate high-resolution maps of pore space topology and mineralogy (shape and composition of rocks) in rock samples from which network models are created. Goual also plans to perform in-situ flow experiments to measure fluid occupancy and the effect of surfactants on NAPL remediation in the same rocks, to validate the model.

“This research wouldn’t be possible without these facilities,” Goual says. “We will be able to create more realistic representations of rock topology and mineralogy in our models.”

This is important, Goual explains, because current computer models can accurately analyze only homogenous rocks. Her research will be able to analyze heterogeneous rocks, which are composed of multiple minerals, including carbonate and clay.

Although they originate at the ground surface, NAPLs can find their way into moving groundwater aquifers. They eventually can reach water wells, streams and lakes through accidental spills, inadequate disposal practices or storage facility leaks. If such compounds enter the subsurface, they tend to stay in concentrated zones and can pose  an environmental risk to groundwater.

Goual will examine and measure the impact of NAPLs on wettability alteration. Wettability is defined as the tendency of one fluid to spread over and adhesively coat a solid surface in the presence of another fluid. The degree to which NAPLs alter rock wettability depends upon rock mineralogy and pore geometry; surface roughness and charge; aging of contaminants; chemical composition of NAPLs; water chemistry; initial water saturation and temperature.

The majority of existing microtomography studies use glass beads to study the effect of wettability on NAPL flow. Goual will be the first to perform such a study on rock sample cores. To use such samples requires higher resolutions.

“For this research, we need to image samples at a few micron resolution,” she says.

The Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory includes the most advanced high-resolution 3-D X-ray microscope available, one that produces ultra-high-resolution images of reservoir rock on the nano-scale. However, Goual will use another 3-D X-ray machine in the lab -- one that can produce reservoir rock images at the micro-scale.

Spreading Knowledge

NSF CAREER Award stipulations require award recipients to include an educational outreach component.  

Goual plans a new “Journey into Underground Rocks” program, which will provide students in grades 6-12 an immersive opportunity to move with the flow inside multi-scale rocks, and better understand fluid/fluid and fluid/rock interactions. The program will use the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) in the Shell 3-D Visualization Laboratory located in UW’s Energy Innovation Center.

In the CAVE, students will be shown images of rock samples Goual has captured as well as the model’s predictions of flow inside the samples.

“They will see the rock from outside and we will gradually zoom in. They will feel like they’re moving inside the rock,” she says. “The CAVE will allow me to create an environment for kids that combines fun with learning, and that’s what NSF likes to fund.”

Additionally, a “Surface Science Days” program -- a two-day summer workshop that will take place at UW in partnership with the new Comprehensive STEM Initiative in Wyoming (CSI-WY) -- is designed to bring underrepresented students together and allow them to apply the science they learn to real life.

“The first day, we’ll go to the lab and they will learn how the measurements are performed,” Goual says. “On the second day, we’ll take a field trip to a company that specializes in remediation.”

In Select Company

The CAREER Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards to support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the organizations’ missions. Only assistant professors without tenure are eligible. The CAREER Program is intended for faculty members who are at or near the beginning of their careers.

The NSF’s Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) recommended Goual for the award. Budgeted over five years, the grant funding will pay for materials and supplies, foreign and domestics travel, and salaries for two graduate students, Goual says.

“This (NSF CAREER Award) validates my work,” says Goual, who says she is a year away from gaining tenure. “I am able to use industry research to leverage my work and increase my collaborations.”

According to her university web page, Goual’s primary area of research involves interfacial science (science of fluid/fluid and rock/fluid interactions) and thermodynamics as applied to production and flow in porous media, with applications to oil and gas recovery, geological storage of greenhouse gases and remediation of contaminated aquifers.

Goual received her doctoral and master’s degrees in petroleum engineering, both at Imperial College in London, England. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Ecole Nationale Polytechnique, a tier-one school in Algeria.

Previously, she was a research scientist at UW’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute during 2006-2007; a post-doctoral fellow in chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, Canada; and a research engineer for Sonatrech oil company in Algeria from 1994-1997.

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